Distinctive folk pottery supports Mexican village life

By Susan Page

In the mountains of Guerrero, in a small village so remote that it does not appear on maps of Mexico or on our GPS, a group of families carries on a tradition of ceramic art that is hundreds of years old and that has been passed from father to son and mother to daughter for many generations. Nowhere else on the planet are people making work that is anything like the large ollas, animals, tall figures and village scenes created by the families in San Augustín Oapan, Guererro. To own a piece of this work is to own a piece of the history of indigenous Mexico, and to help support hardworking families and a traditional way of life for this village.

Galería Atotonilco’s Open House
Featuring ceramic folk art from
San Augustín Oapan
Sat & Sun, Jan 26 & 27, 12-5pm
Directions to the gallery in our ad in this issue

The work is completely distinctive and utterly “Mexican!” The figures are burros, pigs, turkeys and other birds, men on horseback carrying water jugs, churches with gatherings of villagers in the plaza, and the village’s trademark tall, thin figures with faces that resemble the villagers themselves. All the pieces are painted with more village scenes like weddings, fields being plowed and planted, chickens and pigs being fed — the everyday life of these villagers.

Gallery owner Mayer Shacter and I visited San Augustin Oapan last spring. A village artist, Javier Santiago, had to meet us in a nearby town and guide us over dirt roads with unlabeled forks and turns, or we’d never have found it. The family compound, a dirt lot surrounded by cement block buildings, all with dirt floors, was filled with women who warmly greeted us, Javier’s wife, sisters, mother, and countless children, all with bare feet and shy smiles. Their work was neatly laid out on the floor for us to see.

After we selected most of the figures by Javier’s family, a neighbor showed up with several pieces of her work. And then another. And another. The word had spread, and neighbors kept arriving, proudly setting their work out for us to see. Mayer kept the mood light with smiling and laughing, and he kept selecting pieces. We were both amazed to see the continuing variety of forms and the fineness of the paintings, none of which we expected.

At one point I counted 27 people, mostly women, all carrying on lively conversations in their native Náhuatl, and all dressed similarly with a pinafore-like dress with tiny pleats in the skirt and finely embroidered designs on the lapels and waists. Javier told us that no one had ever visited the village to buy work! The artists take their work to neighboring towns, almost exclusively in Guererro, though sometimes as far as Mexico City, to sell it. Our arrival was like a state occasion for these villagers, they were so excited to have us there.

The children were getting a big kick out of my iPod, passing it around, taking turns, listening to classical music. When the small children tired of the novelty, one 11-year-old boy listened for a long time. Maybe he had never heard Mozart or choral music before.

After almost six hours, including a meal of delicious pork soup and hot, homemade tortillas, with many warm handshakes and kisses and our van packed with amazing artwork, we drove away with the whole neighborhood waving. We had the feeling they would all remember this day for a long time.

We were thrilled to learn that, in the second edition of Banamex’s Great Masters of Folk Art series, one family from Oapan was included in the book. Now perhaps the work will be more widely recognized for the superb example of Mexican folk art that it is. Although only one family was singled out for inclusion in the book, in fact many families in the village have equal skill and imagination.

Entire families are involved in every step of the process of bringing these figures to life, from mining and preparing the clay, to sculpting the figures, to burnishing and decorating them, and then firing them. For the surface decorations, they use pigments made from different types of clay and minerals from the region, blended together in a special formula, using mesquite honey. According to the Great Masters of Folk Art book, “This is where the distinguishing characteristics of their pieces lie: in their decorative designs, in the quality of the paints, and in the stories their pieces recount.”

The gallery is located five miles north of town on eight beautiful acres in an architecturally interesting building designed by House and House architects and featured in several books and magazines. Directions to the gallery are in the gallery’s ad in this issue of Atención. For more information, visit our website, www.folkartsanmiguel.com, or call us at 185-2225.


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